Monday, February 1

The Green Belt

Every so often I come across an inspired British innovation. The Green Belt is one such example. It’s an urban development policy from the 1930s, developed to counter relentless suburban sprawl. At the time town planners urged local and national politicians to wrap the nation’s major cities in a “green girdle” of farm land. These green zones restricted development, maintaining a relatively clean boundary between urban and rural land use. This in turn encouraged compact residential development in British cities, significantly reducing the flight to the suburbs that blighted the inner city in other countries.

Over time this policy has resulted in 16,766 square kilomtres of green belt zoning in England alone. The impact on the landscape is significant. As you drive out of London, the scene shifts swiftly from urban jungle to tranquil countryside. Strip malls and cookie-cutter housing developments are almost non-existent. Instead, the view is punctuated by discrete, quaint villages and broad rolling fields. The contrast couldn’t be starker compared with uncontrolled development corridors elsewhere in Europe.

The Mediterranean coastline of Spain and Greece are particularly good example of this ugly, unplanned sprawl. One coastal town seems to blend into another. None have a distinctive character. The overall impression is one of concrete, clutter and commercial greed gone mad. Every time I see these coastal zones I’m left wondering why local authorities permit them as they simply discourage me from ever returning. The same can be said of many urban areas in the USA.

London's Green Belt

Currently, about 11 per cent of English land is zoned into 14 distinct green belts. The largest, and oldest, surrounds London. More than 5,133 square kilometers of protected land encircle the city. The first such zone was proposed by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee in 1934 under the leadership of Herbert Morrison, and introduced the following year. It took another 14 years to define and codify the rest of the belt that remains in place today.

The future of the nation’s green belt policy remains a political hot potato. Its preservation is actively championed by a vocal and well organized lobby group called the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). The organisation boasts 60,000 members and the Queen as its Patron. It’s efforts have done much to prevent the densely populated UK from suffering soul-destroying urban sprawl.

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